‘Blood & Oil’ Can’t Compete With TV’s Most Over-the-Top Soaps

Blood & Oil, ABC’s new Sunday-night soap in the mode of Dynasty and Dallas, is no match for Empire, 2015’s smash-hit homage to those dynastic dramas of yore. Based on the series premiere, this story of an oil-rich town and the people vying for power and money within it does not even approach the twisty, scheme-y politics of shows like Nashville, or a Shondaland-style treat. Not yet, anyway.

What makes a primetime soap catch on, at least nowadays, is a certain excessiveness. Excessiveness of plot, yes, but also excessiveness of character. Look no further than Cookie Lyon to see the latter principle at work. These characters need to be constantly hurling themselves at various obstacles with so much vital energy that we are forced to overlook the logical leaps and inconsistencies that are part of soapy storytelling, and just let it wash over us.

Unfortunately, the creators of Blood & Oil decided to center their story around two boring, pretty, young white people, played by Chace Crawford and Rebecca Rittenhouse. They are newlyweds the LeFevers, and they have a fever for that great American pastime, making money. They load up some washing machines in a pickup truck and head to Williston, North Dakota, where an oil boom has attracted dreamers from all over, filling the bars with honky-tonk, hard-drinking cowboy types — and presumably for our protagonists’ entrepreneurial plans, this will create lots of dirty laundry.

Unfortunately, a little spill on the highway ruins their sudsy aspiration, and they’re penniless as they roll into town. Not to worry; a little scheming, some loan-sharking, some eavesdropping, and a few run-ins with unsavory folk, and  by episode’s end, the LeFevers are smack in the midst of all the town’s drama, poised to be players. Said drama surrounds the oil baron Hap Briggs, played by none other than Don Johnson, and his wife (Amber Valetta, who seems to be channeling Robin Wright in House of Cards).

Briggs is a canny businessman saddled with a sullen, wayward son, appropriately named Wick, a prodigal offspring as nefarious as they come. Rounding out the cast are India de Beaufort as Jules Jackman, a lovely hustler; Delroy Lindo as a sheriff; and a few more promising townsfolk. These secondary  characters seem to have more potential to be interesting and morally ambiguous, and bigger roles for them will surely bode well for Blood & Oil‘s future.

The two couples — the savvy, loaded Briggses; the hungry, broke LeFevers —  lock horns over a small patch of land,  but may end up becoming tentative allies before the premiere ends in an explosive cliffhanger. Lucky for the viewers, oil fields mean lots of chances to see characters fight in the mud, set things on fire, and generally get messy. Unluckily, however, much of the setup makes Williston seem like dullsville. In particular, the LeFevers are so generic and bland that it’s hard to buy in to any show centering itself around them. As for Wick, as a villain he so far seems to be lacking the kind of power-mad charisma that would make us enjoy watching him mess up everyone else’s plans. Instead, he just seem like an entitled, whiny jerk. It’s hard to do a good soap without a good villain.

Given that only the first episode was available for advanced screening, it’s hard to render a final verdict on Blood & Oil. A certain amount of setup is inevitable in a pilot, and if we veer further away from the LeFevers as a starry-eyed young couple and watch them become hardened players in the town’s politics, Blood & Oil could strike it rich.  There’s oodles of potential in the premise, the setting, and a few characters. The show will survive if it doesn’t worry too much about cliche and embraces the goofiness, the Wild West swagger, the greed. Let there be curses, grudges, seductions, betrayals, breakdowns, and turnarounds — and let it be fun.